Success Stories

xTechHBCU winner leaps over achievement gap with boost from U.S. Army

Published: 10/25/2023
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By Anna Volkwine, Office of Army Prize Competitions and Army Applied SBIR Program

WASHINGTON – A college student’s journey from undergraduate to employment was fast-tracked for success when she entered — and won — the U.S. Army xTech Program’s first-ever xTechHBCU Student competition.

In September 2022, xTech launched the xTechHBCU competition to engage with a new generation of innovators from Historically Black Colleges and Universities — a group that is underrepresented across the Army’s tech enterprise but has the potential to solve major Army challenges with diverse perspectives and solutions.

Deneen Royal, a senior at Fayetteville State University, heard about the competition through a college professor and submitted a proposal on Artificial Intelligence for Independent Surveillance Missions. Her technology concept was an AI-based drone that would perform autonomous search and rescue missions. The drone would then use the collected data to improve performance and knowledge on what to look for, including safety risks, during future search and rescue missions for Soldiers in the field.

In February 2023, Royal and 15 other student finalists traveled to the xTechHBCU Student finals event at the 2023 Black Engineer of the Year Awards STEM Conference. Her passion for technology and her life experiences as the daughter of an Army veteran served as a foundation to produce a first-place award for Royal.

“Growing up around the military, I’ve always been interested in the use of technology for the safety of Soldiers. There are a lot of avoidable injuries that happen in combat due to a lack of foresight,” Royal said. “When my mentor introduced me to xTech, I thought it would be a great avenue to get my idea to the Army.”

Royal earned a cash prize of $8,000 and the opportunity to develop a prototype of her technology. The finals event at BEYA also provided what many soon-to-be college graduates’ dream of — multiple job offers. Several of the finalists received on-the-spot interviews and offers from Army and industry organizations attending the conference. Royal piqued the interest of various organizations as a future science and technology leader and ended up landing a job with a large defense contractor, Lockheed Martin.

After graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science from Fayetteville in May 2023, Royal began a new chapter as a young professional and has completed the development of her very own AI-based air drone prototype. Royal combined her software solution with a physical prototype, and she is preparing to conduct operational testing.

Royal’s example is a testament to the value that the xTech Program brings to Army partnerships with HBCUs. Not only does the Army gain access to an up-and-coming generation of innovators, but xTechHBCU Student provides opportunities to minority students who often lack resources for education, mentorship and employment. Programs such as xTech help to bridge the achievement gap that underserved communities often face.

“In larger research competitions, it has been difficult to stick out because everyone looks the same but you,” Royal explained. “Since xTech was HBCU-specific, I realized it would be easier to have my work recognized and have people familiarize themselves with me and where I’m coming from.”

The latest xTechHBCU Student competition is now open

xTech has also recognized that diversifying the talent pool is a multiplier for success — the program launched the second xTechHBCU Student competition on Sept. 20, 2023, with the submission window open until Nov. 10, 2023. Eligible HBCU undergraduate students are encouraged to submit their proposals via the xTech website. Royal’s story exemplifies the purpose of the program, which hopes to see many more success stories like hers to come.

The competition offers a total prize pool of up to $100,000, and the opportunity for final winners to develop a prototype and to attend the finals event at or around the 2024 BEYA STEM Conference in February 2024.

“It’s good to know there are people and organizations out there, such as the Army, who want input from HBCU students,” Royal said. “I believe I would have figured it out regardless, but I’m pretty positive I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for xTech.”

The xTech Program holds several competitions per year. These include open-topic competitions such as xTechSearch and technology-specific competitions that target key Army challenges. For more xTech information, please visit the Army xTech website.

The Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology offers the American Soldier a decisive advantage in any mission by developing, acquiring, fielding and sustaining the world’s finest equipment and services. It also leverages its technologies and capabilities to meet current and future Soldier needs. To learn more, you can visit the ASA(ALT) website.

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xTechHBCU winner leaps over achievement gap with boost from U.S. Army

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